Strange Dogs by James S.A. Corey (audio)

The Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games, Babylon’s Ashes. Then there was The Vital Abyss, an extra novella, like this one. Strange Dogs falls between Babylon’s Ashes and Persepolis Rising.

The day after the stick moons appeared, Cara killed a bird.

And a strange one it is. Like The Vital Abyss, this installation stars different characters and takes place in a different setting than the main thread of The Expanse, but in the same general world (in the sense of worldbuilding, universe, galaxy, although none of these are accurate terms in the “world” of The Expanse). These extra novellas are digressions from the central storyline, but in the same way that each novel also enters new subplots and introduces new characters; the difference there is that the novel then returns to Holden et al, where these novellas live and die in the otherworld.

Here we are on Laconia, one of the “new worlds” opened by the ring gates, and we center on a young girl named Cara. I believe she is eight year old. She was born on Earth but taken by her parents to Laconia as an infant; it’s the only world she’s ever known. While this novella forgoes the first person perspective taken by The Vital Abyss, its close third person means that we see Laconia through her eyes, which I think is a useful way to learn about both the planet and the girl, and the blind spots and confusions natural to her experience: her misunderstandings of Earth and the two worlds’ differences, for example.

In a nutshell, this is a retelling of Pet Sematary. While spending a day down at the pond like she likes to, Cara encounters some (yes) strange dogs she’s never seen before; but when she tells them to leave, they do so. She offers bread to a sunbird (something like a duck), because she saw a woman do just this in a book, from Earth. (Please note: bread is bad for ducks on Earth, too!) This kills the bird. Cara is distressed. Against her mother’s wishes, she then steals the family drone to try and save the ducklings she has orphaned. Cara accidentally breaks the drone as well: Mama Bird and drone, both broken. But lo, the strange dogs return and bring Mama Bird back to life, and they fix the drone as well. When Cara’s little brother is hit by a car and killed, guess what she thinks to do with him.

I find it a little odd how closely this book rips off Stephen King, but I’m not upset about it; there’s nothing new under the sun. Picasso said “good artists copy; great artists steal.” And if you’re going to steal, by all means King is a great source. There’s only so much mystery, for me, involved in the outcome of bringing little brother back to life; but the events that follow do leave some questions, and the novella ends with these questions unresolved. I’m curious; I hope we’ll learn more in future books, and it sounds like we will. (I spent a little time reading reviews on Goodreads, and reactions vary widely, of course. In fact, a better discussion lives here.)

If this book is an obvious rip-off of Pet Sematary, that doesn’t mean it’s not a creative retelling, well constructed and imaginative. Recall the adage, again, that there are only two stories in the world: a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. (Other versions have a few more stories in the world, but the point is their finite number.) If there are only a few stories, it’s about how we tell and retell them, right? Corey engaged me with this one. Cara’s difficulty parsing the two worlds – the one she knows, and the one her parents come from – is an intriguing problem. The foreign flora and fauna of Laconia are at the heart of this book’s conflict, and raise concerns that later books (I’m sure) will continue to deal with. We are reminded of the “new world” problems of Cibola Burn. And the ending, which some reviewers have taken issue with, I found thought-provoking and appropriately teasing.

Ready for more, always!


Rating: 8 complexly jointed legs.

The Vital Abyss by James S.A. Corey (audio)

The Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games, Babylon’s Ashes. This novella falls between Abaddon’s Gate and Cibola Burn.

Just a quickie, this novella takes places entirely within a prison of sorts, a single large room accommodating about three dozen of the research scientists from Thoth Station – the ones who helped orchestrate the massacre at Eros starring the Protomolecule. It’s told in the first-person perspective of a Dr. Cortazar, a nanoinformatics researcher who agreed to undergo a ‘procedure’ which, let’s say, burned away his compassion and empathy and allowed him to undertake this genocidal work. In the present-tense of the novella, we’re between Abaddon’s Gate and Cibola Burn, as I’ve said; but Cortazar’s flashbacks take us through the development and the events at Eros themselves, too, from a perspective we haven’t seen before.

It’s a hell of an interesting ambition, this little book, in several ways. For one thing, the protagonist is not going to be a sympathetic character; he’s part of a massive mass murder, and feels not the least guilt. For another, the present of the story mostly takes place in this single large room, with the petty dramas and extreme boredom of the captives. It’s a story in which not much happens, in the present at least – more happens in flashbacks, but even the Eros events are rather offscreen. Cortazar’s background previous to these events is the more interesting episode, in my opinion.

This novella will engage the series fan, not least with the familiar voice of Jefferson Mays. I think its greatest contribution to the larger body of work is in the curious sociopathy of Cortazar and his fellow researchers (this is the note on which it ends, which is not giving away much). I enjoyed seeing the worldbuilding minds of Corey applied to a new storyline: that of Cortazar as a youngster, his mother’s illness and his own academic studies, and so on. It’s more of the same good stuff. It’s a minor offshoot of the series as a whole, with I think minimal impact on the whole, but it was entertaining and absorbing. And who knows? Maybe Cortazar will return as a player and I’ll be wrong about the minimal impact here.

Well worth the time.


Rating: 7 pills.

The Asylum by John Harwood (audio)

This is a Victorian gothic mystery/psych thriller, and how it ended up in my iPod is another mystery which I cannot explain. I hit ‘play’ on it on a whim, and listened to the tracks from disc 1 and then there were no more. I was involved enough that I then went and paid for the audiobook (which I never do), and now I’m left unsatisfied with my purchase.

Georgina Ferrars wakes up in an asylum (a madhouse, she surmises, although the doctor in charge demurs at the term), with no memory of the past several weeks. She’s told she checked in under the name Lucy Ashton; her L.A.-monogrammed valise supports that claim. When Dr. Straker telegrams her uncle, the reply comes immediately: Georgina Ferrars is here at home. Your patient is an imposter.

It’s an engaging enough opening, and what unfolds from here continues to intrigue. It seems Miss Ferrars has a double, a new friend (or long-lost something-or-other?) named Lucia Ardent (note the initials), and the two look just alike. The question now is which is whom? Miss Ferrars is missing her two prized possessions: a dragonfly brooch that was a gift from her father to her mother; and a writing case, with her journal inside. If that journal could only be found, we might learn what happened in the missing weeks…

Solid plot so far, then. I found it a little bit exasperating to listen to the distraught young lady who (how Victorian) is wont to become faint at every shock, but okay, it’s part of the period setting. When the diary is located, we start learning more about the Ferrars/Ardent/Ashton history; here connections and plot lines get increasingly twisted, and I’m afraid Harwood got his threads a little entangled. There is a major reveal that just did not follow for me – I didn’t see how we made the logical leap – and, because I was listening to the audiobook while driving, I wonder if it was my fault, if I just missed a crucial moment. But I did go back and re-listen to some parts. And, too, a number of other readers on Goodreads were left confused as well. I’m inclined to think that if a larger portion of your readership missed something, maybe it’s on the writer and not the readers. (I have experienced this as a writer – I put the fact in, but everybody missed it – and even though I put the fact in, if they all missed it, I didn’t do my job properly.)

At any rate, the final third or so of the book – the protracted denouement – was far less compelling, and less believable, than what came before. Our heroine is alternately the fainting Victorian weakly woman, and a surprisingly scrappy, clever one; these quick shifts back and forth and back again did not ring true. The quickly complicating plot threads got too incredible for me. The final action scene, followed by the final proposal and answer, topped out the ridiculousness; it was a major letdown. Oh, and – spoilers in white text here; highlight to read – there’s a lesbian incest thread, for good measure.

Full credit for that first disc’s worth of tracks pulling me in; and more than half the book kept me engaged. After that, I was just hanging on out of increasingly incredulous curiosity about how this silliness would wrap up. Not particularly recommended. As I learned on Goodreads, Harwood has his fans, and some of them loved this book; some would recommend others of his over this one. I won’t be trying him again, but you’re welcome to.


Rating: 6 windows.

Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey (audio)

The Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games, and now book six, Babylon’s Ashes.

I realize I keep going light on plot summary with these books, and I’m going to continue that trend here – you can get synopses elsewhere (as usual, Tor.com does a good job), and I feel pretty strongly that that’s not the point for me, with this series in particular. I’m here for the people. And they are delightfully developed in each episode. This book is delicious in its continuing development of everyone in turn. I feel that we’re consolidating our cast of characters, swelling the ranks of the Rocinante‘s crew to include Bobbie and Clarissa, and keeping up with Fred Johnson, Avasarala, Marco and Filip, and even (in prologue and epilogue) checking in with Anna Volovodov. Michio Pa is back with a still larger role to play; and Praxidike Meng, like Anna, plays a smallish role, but the presence of each of these returning characters would seem to indicate that they’ll have more to contribute in future books.

As the title indicates (and I have to say this is the first time I’ve found the title even glancingly related to the book’s contents!), the world is changing irrevocably; the question now is simply whether humanity will survive the coming years. Naturally, it is only thanks to the Rocinante‘s crew – well, with some help – that they have a chance at all.

I’m a little surprised it took me this long to notice a habit: all the characters in The Expanse consistently push their food away before they’ve finished it. All the foods, it seems, coagulate or degrade quickly into something pasty. (Almost all of these foods are made from a finite list of ingredients, things like mushrooms and yeast, and they tend to get gummy.) Sometimes it’s because something sad or bad happens and the character is suddenly no longer hungry. But whatever the reason, I’m not sure I’ve seen a character finish a meal yet – I typed, before getting to the epilogue, where Anna’s daughter Nami remarkably does so. Still, there’s a pattern. They’re always pushing the bowl away or putting it in the recycler. Funny what we notice. Funny the habits of a writer (or in this case, writers): the Corey team seems unable to let our folks eat to satiation.

Also, whoever it was that said that all science fiction is really set in the present (my buddy CT thinks it was Ursula Le Guin) was not wrong. This series’s new world is different in many of its details – including some pretty basic building blocks of life, like food, and travel, and the air we breathe – but all that is just so much window dressing, when it comes down to it. The essential problems in this world are the same old ones: how humans get along with each other. Power grabbing, greed, the needs of the disenfranchised to eat and breathe up against the “needs” of some selfish jerk or another to control everything. Racism now follows what part of the solar system a person comes from; ethnicity seems to be a non-issue, but really the discrimination has just shifted its focus. I deeply appreciate this new lens on an old problem: when I say that this is just the same story set in a different world, or that its details are window dressing, I don’t mean to be dismissive. I think it’s extraordinary. And sometimes we need new backdrops to recognize old problems in a fresh new way. If certain problem presidents were in a book club, maybe they could read this series; I don’t know.

Deep, complex characters, entertaining dialog (Corey is back on their stride after some hiccups), a racing plot, and the big questions about capital-H Humanity: I love this stuff as much as ever. You can expect more reviews to follow. Hooray!


Rating: 8 rocks.

The Darwin Affair by Tim Mason

Playwright Tim Mason’s first adult novel, a rousing mystery set in Victorian England, has it all: thrills, engrossing characters, taut pacing and historical interest.


Playwright Tim Mason’s first adult novel, The Darwin Affair, is a rousing mystery set in Victorian England. In 1859, the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species poses a menace to the powers that be, and some of society’s upper echelon want him squelched. Amid the conspiracy lurks a tall, shadowy man with deep-set eyes; death seems to follow wherever he goes. The dogged Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field is on the case, although his findings are not necessarily welcomed by all. Field tracks his suspect from meat market to tavern to the royal court, from England to Germany, and even to the high-profile Wilberforce-Huxley debate on evolution at Oxford. Scenes of crashing action and adventure include a racing carriage on a collision course with a speeding train. With cameos by Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and a variation on Typhoid Mary rounding out the peripheral cast, this is a wild tale that engulfs the reader from start to finish.

Satisfyingly plot-driven, then, The Darwin Affair also offers very engaging characters: approachable Albert, Prince Consort; Queen Victoria, haughty but not humorless; a comic Marx; and a gracious, gentle Darwin.

But Mason’s less famous hero definitely steals the show. Field has difficulties with authority that will be familiar to fans of contemporary fictional detectives like Harry Bosch and Dave Robicheaux. Mason’s playwriting skills are evident in realistic dialogue and well-constructed, easily envisioned scenes. Readers of historical fiction, murder mysteries, action/adventure and thrillers will be equally entertained and perhaps edified: beneath the excitement lie thought-provoking questions about class and order, the interplay of science and religion and intellectual curiosity. The Darwin Affair has it all: thrills, engrossing characters, taut pacing and historical interest.


This review originally ran in the June 21, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 monkeys.

The Crook Factory by Dan Simmons (audio)

Directly after Mrs. Hemingway, I began this one, only subconsciously recalling that its subject matter was similar: a novel about Hemingway’s life. Such is the level of my Hemingway obsession that I keep these things lying around and forget I have them at all…

The Crook Factory gave me rather more trouble than the last one, though. This is a spy thriller about Hemingway’s life during the early years of American involvement in WWII, when he lived in Cuba and took his boat, the Pilar, out hunting for German submarines in the Gulf. He was basically playing at spy, and my impression from various biographies is that his activities were a little silly. In his afterword, though, Dan Simmons informs his reader that much of the story he tells here is based in historical fact. He says that the documentation of Hemingway’s activities in the early 40s are still classified to this day, which I confess is suspicious: to my mind, why classified, if there were nothing serious going on? So that’s interesting. Maybe we are all guilty of not taking Hemingway seriously enough.

FBI Agent Joe Lucas narrates this novel, looking back after decades – after Hemingway’s 1961 suicide – to recall his brief acquaintance with “the writer” (often referred to as such) in 1942-43. This flashback is told in present tense. Lucas has been sent down to Havana by Director J. Edgar Hoover to keep an eye on Hemingway as he plays spy on his thirty-eight-foot fishing boat, hunting German subs and trying to intercept radio transmissions. Hem has put together a ragtag group he calls the “Crook Factory,” of amateurs including little boys, local bartenders and Spanish exiles – and Lucas, who figures he’s been put out to pasture on this ridiculous mission. Lucas is derisive in his dismissal of Hemingway’s silly games; but serious things keep happening, and he keeps wondering why these seem like important events when of course they could not be… and this incredulity lasts long enough to strain my own faith in Lucas’s character, as he’s supposed to be this great agent and simultaneously awfully slow to figure out that the Gulf action is real deal, man.

This book has a few things going for it: an incredibly unlikely, wild, action-filled story; Hemingway’s undeniable charisma; name-dropping Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper, Ian Fleming, John F. Kennedy, Marlene Dietrich, and more. Putting Hemingway in one’s own fiction is tricky, though. The man was so nearly a caricature of himself that it’s too easy to write him as one; but the man in real life forced people to take him seriously, too, so he walked a fine line between ridiculous and deadly serious, that many writers find difficult to properly evoke. I’ve read maybe a dozen fictionalizations of him, and I’d say half or so get it right. Simmons’s Hemingway does not ring true for me. The reader drives me a little crazy; he strikes the right note for the hard-boiled spy-thriller, I suppose, but I don’t think he does Hemingway well. The man comes out sounding kind of high and nasal-y, which doesn’t feel right at all. (There aren’t many recordings of Hem’s voice, but they do exist.) Part of this is the reader, but part of it too is Simmons’s writing of the man. It feels like he couldn’t decide whether he was satirizing Hem or taking him seriously. And Gellhorn here is a nagging shrew – this, more the author’s fault, although again I’m not crazy about the way she’s performed – which I don’t think is remotely fair. She was a strong woman – the most independent of his wives – and they certainly fought, but this screeching nag felt wrong.

I was frequently frustrated as well by the silliness of the plot, but again, with Simmons’s afterword I feel a little chastened – I don’t feel qualified to quibble with the line between fact and fiction here. I’ve read several Hemingway biographies, but it’s been years, and none of them focused especially on these years. Simmons certainly offers a wilder version of this episode than I’d read before. It felt like fiction, but fact is stranger than.

While on that topic, though, I want to note the dialog between the Hemingway character and that of the narrator Joe Lucas, an FBI man with no patience for fiction. Hem defends his novels and the truer-than-true nature of fiction, saying “that’s why I write fiction rather than fact.” Wait, what?? Is Simmons unaware of the nine full-length works of nonfiction published by Hemingway, including the canonical A Moveable Feast and Death in the Afternoon?! The man decidedly wrote both fact and fiction. For goodness sake, he got his start in journalism. Simmons lost a lot of credibility in that line.

The plot is strong, if a bit incredible. Characters are shaky; Lucas himself felt a bit overdrawn, as well as my concerns about Hem. And Simmons may be a bit too invested in detail: FBI dossiers, the finer points of codes and code-breaking… I think the story could have been exciting, and more engaging, at two-thirds this length, or less. I found myself involved enough to stick it out, which is no small thing with this audiobook of twenty-one hours. I repeatedly thought about quitting, but I stuck around, because I wanted to see what happened. So I guess that’s an endorsement of sorts. Certainly, my interest is piqued about the events in question.

Pretty mixed review on this one. For a Hemingway completist like myself, it’s worth a try. Simmons has many fans; maybe you’ll love him, too.


Rating: 6 five-letter sequences.

Girls Like Us by Cristina Alger

Heart-racing action and a twisty-turny plot star in this thriller of multigenerational cops and murders.

Cristina Alger (The Banker’s Wife, This Was Not the Plan) crafts a gripping story of suspense with Girls Like Us. Fans of murder mysteries packed with action and plot twists will be satisfied by this edge-of-the-seat adventure into seedy Suffolk County.

FBI Agent Nell Flynn has returned home to the unbeautiful end of Long Island to sprinkle her father’s ashes, close up his house and move on. It’s her first time back in 10 years. She’s on leave from the Bureau following a traumatic on-the-job shooting, recovering from injuries both physical and emotional. Her father, homicide detective Marty Flynn, had some good buddies on the force, and it’s nice to see them again, but Suffolk County doesn’t hold many pleasant memories. Then Marty’s last partner, Lee Davis, with whom Nell went to high school, asks for her help on one last case. Two young women have been murdered: “working girls,” the cops call them; one of them was undocumented. These are the kinds of lives the department doesn’t really value. In their details, though, these murders take Nell back to the murder of her mother when Nell was seven years old.

Is there a serial killer at work in Suffolk County? Is there a link to Nell’s past? What exactly was her father’s involvement? Was his death really an accident–and was she wrong to alibi him on the night of her mother’s death? As clues mount up and point in different directions, Nell is less and less sure of who she can trust. Her wounds are not at all well healed, but she may be the only one who can prevent more deaths.

Girls Like Us is a little weak on certain details–the way a deadbolt works, the difference between prostitution and pandering charges, how a field agent might tell a suspect was dead. But its plot drives with such momentum that these details may be overlooked. With violent action and split-second turns, this is not a book to put down easily: plan accordingly. Alger’s thriller is emphatically plot-driven, but her characters hold their own, from Lee, who doesn’t quite fit in on the force, to the guys Marty Flynn was closest to in the department and the retired cop who runs the local bar.

As an added complication, the new murders and that of Nell’s mother may be class-based, as the rich summer people of the Hamptons meet the working-class section of Long Island, where Nell and the Suffolk County Police Department guys are from. Nell is a quintessential damaged cop, even if she is FBI: ignoring her own injuries, pushing too hard, taking foolhardy risks, with a strong sense of right and wrong (as her father seemed to have). Her personality serves as backbone to the electric plot of Girls Like Us, and the reader trusts that she will follow through to the truth, no matter how much it hurts.


This review originally ran in the June 3, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 deadbolts.
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